Why excellence?

Mozart: Whom did they choose?
Salieri: Herr Zummer.
Mozart: Herr Zummer? But the man’s a fool, he’s a total mediocrity!
Salieri: No, no, he has yet to achieve mediocrity.

Edwards: Maybe you already answered this, but: Why exactly are we here?
Zed: [Acknowledges a soldier.] Son…
Jenson: Second Lieutenant Jake Jenson. West Point. Graduate with honors. We’re here because you are looking for the best of the best of the best, sir.
Men in Black

gold-medal2Watching the Olympics in Turin. Downhill. Cross country. Figure skating. Snowboarding. Ski jumping.

From around the world, the best of the best of the best have come to compete. The margins are insane, about a half a second between gold and silver medals for the men’s downhill.

It isn’t only in the world of sports that we recognize the best of the best. Think Pulitzer and Nobel. Emmys and Oscars and Golden Globes. Rhodes Scholars. In every discipline, whether art or science or mathematics or the humanities or sports, we encourage and reward the very highest levels of human achievement.

And most of us don’t make the cut.

Italy’s legendary Luciano Pavarotti performed Puccini at the opening ceremonies and wowed the crowd as he always does.

Luciano and I are both tenors. We have similar vocal ranges. We’ve both performed for audiences.

But hey, I won’t kid you. Compared to Luciano Pavarotti, I have yet to achieve mediocrity.

Why are we so enthralled by the best of the best? Why do we pursue excellence so relentlessly? Why do we drive ourselves to compete, to excel? What pushes us to run faster, to jump higher, to try to capture in the performance of a symphony or an aria the perfect interpretation of the composer’s inner vision?

Achievement is often rewarded, of course, sometimes financially, sometimes by the semi-immortality of seeing our names written into the history books. These create powerful incentives to dedicate long hours to the painful regimes needed to get to the top, whether that means breaking a home run record or becoming the next American Idol.

In the less-rarified air that most of us mere mortals breathe, there is still a drive to excel in the ordinary, to achieve excellence in the mundane details of life.

All of us measure ourselves. We gauge our character, we keep a mental list of our achievements, we look at our friends, neighbors and co-workers and make comparisons. We take pleasure in the compliments and approbations of others. We pat ourselves on the back and make self-appraisals based on a variety of internal yardsticks.

Why? What is it that pushes us to try harder? What is it that creates dissatisfaction, and drives us to improve? For those of us who have no prospect of wealth and fame, what is it that causes us to take pride in our achievements, or to feel disappointed when we know we can do better?

The Scriptures suggest that God, himself, has put this desire in our hearts. He, himself, has created the desire to live in excellence, to reach for perfection. Like children who aim to please their parents, we are God-aware, and he has written his character on our hearts.

“This command I am giving you today is not too difficult for you to understand or perform. It is not up in heaven, so distant that you must ask, ‘Who will go to heaven and bring it down so we can hear and obey it?’ The message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart so that you can obey it.
“Now listen! Today I am giving you a choice between prosperity and disaster, between life and death. I have commanded you today to love the Lord your God and to keep his commands, laws, and regulations by walking in his ways.” —Deuteronomy 30:11-16a, NLT

If the message of life has been written by God on our lips and in our hearts, that message encourages us to mimic God: to live in holiness, to love our neighbors, to create beauty in all that we do, to seek God with all of our heart.

It’s important to remember that the rewards of excellence and achievement fade. Old records are broken by younger and faster athletes. Notoriety evaporates. Age robs us of beauty. If anything, the transience of human achievement should shift our gaze higher, away from the foothills of excellence to the summit of perfection.

Do you remember how, on a racing-track, every competitor runs, but only one wins the prize? Well, you ought to run with your minds fixed on winning the prize! Every competitor in athletic events goes into serious training. Athletes will take tremendous pains—for a fading crown of leaves. But our contest is for an eternal crown that will never fade. I run the race then with determination. —1 Corinthians 9:24-26a, JB Phillips

Why excellence? Because we are the offspring of the Father of Excellence, who makes us a promise: that Christ, the perfect Lamb, will one day exchange these tarnished accolades and rusting medals for a crown of pure gold.

Photo credit: BBC

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  1. As one 1st tenor to another … that was a great post. I’ve been wondering about Christianity and arete for some time.

    Although, isn’t that an argument by Paul not to pursue ephemeral excellence like singing that aria well, acheiving athletic prowess, or fame, but that instead we need to strive for something else?

    I’d like to find justification to pursue excellence because as a carry over from my “pagan years” I found that to be a virtue. Is it still?

  2. This makes me think of Romans 2:29, where Paul describes the “real Jew” as the one who is a Jew inwardly, with circumcision of the heart by the Spirit. “Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.” This praise sounds something like: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matt. 25:21) It’s normal and good to seek recognition for excellent performance. The important question remains “For what? And from whom?”

  3. Hi!

    Interesting post. The question of why we relentlessly seek excellence is a good one.

    I heard an interview quite a while ago with a figure skater. He strove for years for the Olympic gold medal. Finally, he stood on the podium, the medal around his neck, our flag going up and the anthem being played. All he could think about was, “Is this all there is?” He felt empty on the inside.

    If we’re seeking excellence to fill a void in our souls, we’re destined to disappointment. Only Jesus Christ can fill that place. If we’re seeking excellence as a way to glorify God in our lives, we’ll find joy in blessing His heart.

    In the joy of the Lord,


  4. Charlie, though you may not yet have reached mediocrity as a tenor, I’m sure Pavarotti wishes he could reach mediocrity compared to your writing and heart. That is, if he’s got more that a lifeless slab of bratwurst resting in his brain cavity.

  5. Hi Charlie:

    This is really good stuff!

    I like your thought that even in Old Testament times (Deut 30:14) God was telling His people that the choice to live an excellent life by being obedient to His plans and design was not something completely foreign to their nature and something within their reach.

    I think that Jesus reiterates this when he says “be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect (Matt 5:48). Yet later, he also tells His disciples to “abide” in Him, because “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

    Perhaps the one who is true to the God-given desire and strives for excellence, not just of achievement but also of character, will be sure to find the Lord Jesus in the process:

    “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

    Matthew 5:6

    “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

    John 18:37

  6. It’s noteworthy that the first time the Bible mentions someone being “filled with the holy spirit,” it is an artist (Bezalel), charged with overseeing the construction of the tabernacle. Thus even from the beginning, excellence was both a good that humans are charged with pursuing, and something that requires God’s grace to reach. See Exodus 35:30-35.

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